Excerpted from Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah. Copyright © 2003 by Kristin Hannah. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Random House Reader’s Circle: This is the first time Between Sisters has been released as a trade paperback and as a Random House Reader’s Circle novel. How does it feel to return to this earlier novel of yours?
Kristin Hannah: It was actually a surprising and interesting endeavor, to look back on my own past. I imagined that it would be like looking at old photographs in a yearbook–you know what I mean. Where you look at your younger self and wonder what on earth you were thinking to choose that hairstyle. As a child of the disco era, I have a lot of those pictures gathering dust somewhere. Anyway, when I first realized that I’d have to reread the novel (which is something I never do), I was nervous. But the truth is that I was able to read the book as a pure reader, with no red pen in hand, and it was a lot of fun. I fell in love with the characters all over again. I can honestly say that I adore so many of the characters in this book. Meghann, Claire, Joe, the Bluesers . . . it’s a fun group of people who inhabit this world.
RHRC: Readers originally met the lead character, Meghann Dontess, in your novel Distant Shores. What made you decide to write her story? Did you already have a story in mind for her when you were writing Distant Shores?
KH: I have now written eighteen novels, and Meghann Dontess is the only character to date who has ever appeared as a secondary character and demanded her own story. In the beginning, she was a relatively unimportant character–the heroine’s best friend, who showed up for a few margarita nights–but by the time I finished her first scene, I knew I wanted to find out more about her. From her first line of dialogue, she was funny, sarcastic, angry, and deeply damaged. In short, I loved her and wanted to know more. By the time I finished Distant Shores, I was already imagining what Meghann’s life would be like. That was the start of Between Sisters.
RHRC: Your novels are very much about emotional ties and relationships between people. In this book, you highlight the bond between sisters–what compelled you to tell this story about two estranged sisters?
KH: In retrospect, I can see how important a book like Between Sisters was for me. At the time, it seemed that I was doing what I always do–following an idea that compels me. But in fact, Between Sisters was a career changing choice. It was the first time I’d written a novel that focused primarily on women. Sure, there are men in the story–and women who fall in love–but the heart of this story is the relationship between two women. And once I’d opened that door, it changed the course of my career and my ideas. In the years since, I have gone on to write about all the facets of women’s lives.
RHRC: Your characters are so true-to-life and well drawn. What’s your process for creating characters? Do you start with a few characteristics and then let them evolve as the story progresses or do you already have a “model” for each character? Do you base them on people in your real life?
KH: I am often asked if I base characters on the people in my own life, and I take this as a real compliment. Hopefully it means my characters are so full of life that readers believe they must be drawn from reality. The truth is that more often than not, my characters are wholly imaginary. I have never consciously modeled a character after anyone I know. That being said, I will reveal that most of the characters I create are somehow a part of me. In Between Sisters, Meghann comes from my obsessive, controlling, frightened side; Claire springs from my caring, relaxed, at-home-mom side. So in a way, it can be said that this book is a metaphorical melding of my own personality traits. This is true in much of my work. My characters are often working through issues that touch upon my own life. This is why so many of my female characters grapple with the early, painful loss of a mother. It’s my own form of therapy. In this novel, the mother is absent, but the effect is the same: growing up without a mother leaves a mark on a woman.
As to my process for creating characters, it is all about layering. I begin with a broad idea of what a character needs to be to make the plot/premise work. It’s almost an archtype. And then, draft by draft, I add defining characteristics and back story, until, hopefully, I’ve created a fully animated imaginary person. If I’ve done my job, the reader will believe that my characters can truly “walk right off the page” and sit down for coffee.
RHRC: Do any of your characters ever surprise you?
KH: I am not one of those authors who loses control throughout the writing of the book. I am almost entirely the puppet master in the creation of characters. Thus, it is rare that my characters do things that surprise me. What does happen, however, is I find that occasionally a character will not do what I need them to do. That means a redo of the plot. When I hit a wall like that, I know that something critical is wrong earlier; that I haven’t created the right motivation for a given action. What does surprise me on occasion is how much I like a character, or how pleased I am with the end result. A few of my favorite characters–Izzy from On Mystic Lake, Alice from Magic Hour, Tully from Firefly Lane, and Anya from Winter Garden.
RHRC: As a mother yourself, was it difficult for you to write about a mother who abandoned her children? How did you feel when you were writing about Ellie?
KH: It’s clear from my body of work that motherhood is a huge thing for me. There’s no doubt that I identify primarily as a mother. Like all women, I am many other things as well–writer, wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister– but motherhood is the very core of who I am. So, yes, it was difficult to write about a woman who was so cavalier about her responsibilities, and therefore, so cruel. Obviously, the effect on her children was devastating. It’s clear that Meghann’s personality was shaped and wounded by the abandonment; it is the reason she cannot really believe in love and why she’s so angry. She really uses sex to keep love at bay, and she doesn’t see how much this choice is hurting her.
Between Sisters is definitely a sisters’ book first and foremost, but it’s also about motherhood. Claire has worked hard to become the kind of mother she never had. And that’s important to me; to point out that cycles of abuse can be stopped; that love can change the dynamic of a family. In the end, I felt that Ellie was a tragic character, who was probably profoundly wounded herself.
RHRC: You have a knack of making readers feel what your characters are feeling. I had to fight back tears reading some of your more emotional scenes. Do you ever feel emotionally raw after writing a scene? Have you ever cried while writing a scene?
KH: Thank you so much for that nice compliment. It used to worry me that readers so often were moved to tears while reading my novels, but I’ve come to realize that all of us need a good cry now and then. I work very hard at creating characters that you know well enough to care about.
I know there are many writers who are so moved by their own work that they cry while writing the pivotal scenes. For the most part, I am not one of those writers. As I said in one of the previous answers, I am very firmly in control during the writing process. There’s always a part of me who is looking at the work from a distance, judging each word choice, manipulating each action and reaction, editing the pacing. But I do end these difficult scenes feeling completely spent and wrung out. Emotionally raw is a great way to put it. It takes a lot out of me to “go” to these sad and frightening places. There’s a scene in Between Sisters that was particularly difficult: Claire’s saying goodbye to her daughter. I had to take a long walk on the beach after that.
If I am going to cry over my own work, it will happen after the writing is done, when I’m reading the advance reader’s copy. Supposedly, I’m looking for errors, but occasionally, I have found my eyes welling up. Firefly Lane and Winter Garden come to mind in this regard. Both of these novels had scenes that made me cry.
RHRC: Claire and Bobby fell in love at first sight and after only a few weeks of marriage, Bobby stuck it through with Claire during the worst of times. Do you believe in love at first sight? Do you think that it’s possible to love someone so unconditionally after knowing them for so little time?
KH: I believe in something at first sight. It’s not quite love, but certainly it can be the start of it. Obviously, true love is not an endgame; it’s a process. The journey is what matters. But I do believe that you can see someone and know right away that there’s something special between you. Passion + caring + commitment can certainly equal true love. What we do know is that love can last a lifetime but it takes a lot of work. That’s one of the lessons Claire has to learn in this novel. Because of the way she was raised, she can’t allow herself to believe in Bobby’s love. Not really. Ironically, it is tough-as-nails Meghann who believes in Bobby.
RHRC: When you write, do you ever think about how readers will relate to the issues you present in your books? In particular, what do you want women and/or sisters to take from this book? What discussions would you like to be opened up from this book?
KH: I do not actively think about readers when I write my novels. I think that would be crippling. I have enough of my own thoughts rattling around in the attic of my mind. I don’t think I can handle much more.
I think what women can and should take away from this book is a realization that the dynamics of a family can always change. Bad choices made in the past can be undone. Love can grow in ground that has been weedy and untended for years. As far as discussion, I’d love it if women reassessed “lost” relationships in their lives and talked about reconnecting with old friends/estranged family members.
RHRC: What can we expect to see from you in the future?
KH: It’s always a surprise to me, too. Ideas are like guardian angels; they simply appear when you need them most. I rarely know where exactly I’m headed. What I can say is that I am always drawn to female relationships and the price of love. I am continually exploring ideas of redemption, loss, grief, and forgiveness.
1. In the opening scene of the novel, Meghann Dontess is talking to her therapist, but clearly Meghann has little or no interest in really addressing the pain in her past. Why does she see a psychiatrist? What does it say about her character that she spends time and money in pursuit of emotional well-being, but refuses to actually answer the questions posed by Dr. Bloom?
2. Meghann and Claire obviously grew up in a very dysfunctional home environment. Each has in large part fashioned a life based on the lessons learned from their inattentive/unloving mother. How are the sisters alike in their choices? How are they different?
3. Meghann often uses sex to dull the pain of her loneliness. But sex with strangers generally leaves her feeling more alienated and dissatisfied with her life. Why is she so afraid of intimacy? Why does she really have these random encounters with men?
4. In many ways, Between Sisters is a novel about the disappointments that come with love. As a hotshot divorce attorney, Meghann is particularly entwined with the daily aftermath of a love gone bad. She believes she is protecting her heart by steering clear of love, but is she? Or is she more damaged by her inability to love at all? In one scene, a client finally says to her, “What happened to you?”
Meghann answers that it requires emotional armor of a sort to do her job. Is that the truth, though? How is that question–what happened to you?–the centerpiece of the novel? The question that each character must ultimately face and answer.
5. Claire is obviously scarred by her mother’s neglect and abandonment. Why is Claire more able to rebound from these wounds? Does she blame Meghann for leaving her in the first place or for never really coming back? Did Meghann make the right decision all those years ago? Would you have done the same thing in that situation?
6. Joe and Meghann both claim to be unable to truly feel their own emotions. Is that true? Or are they both able to feel loss? How are they alike in the way they handle pain?
7. Meghann is a deeply flawed and wounded character. Would she agree with this assessment? If not, why not? And if her flaws are a product of an unhappy childhood, why is Claire so different? How much do the Bluesers contribute to Claire’s happiness with her own life? Discuss the pivotal role of female friendship in our lives. Do you think it becomes even more important as we get older?
8. At the beginning of the novel, Meghann may be unhappy and aware of that unhappiness, but she is a force to be reckoned with in the legal world. How does her career as a divorce attorney play into her world view and sustain her fear of intimacy? It’s clear that as she begins to “break apart,” her ability to practice family law is one of the first things to go. Why is that?
9. What is your opinion of Meghann? She is certainly judgmental and hardheaded and critical of people and their emotions. How much of her cynicism is real? How much of it is a defense mechanism? Why is she so afraid of her own emotions? Do you know anyone like her?
10. How much of the sisters’ personalities were shaped by their shared and separate past? Who would Meghann have become if Sam had taken her in and made her a part of his family? Did she give Sam a chance or was she looking for an excuse to leave?
11. What drew you to each character? With which character did you sympathize? Did your opinions change over the course of the story?
12. The medical crisis is ultimately the catalyst for change in the novel. As is often true, terrible times can bring out both the best and the worst in people. In many ways it can be said that Meghann became her best self during the tragedy with her sister and ultimately even helped to save Claire. But how did the crisis–and Claire–save Meghann?
13. Claire’s battle with cancer brings the sisters opposing personalities into sharp focus. Each must grapple with faith and hope and the possible loss of both. How does this struggle change each character? How does the idea of death bring Meghann and Claire closer together? How does it push them apart?
14. In Between Sisters there is a deeply symbiotic relationship between the characters and the place in which they live. Each sister is defined to a great extent by where she lives. Meghann learns to adapt to, and even love, Claire’s hometown. Could Claire ever be as happy in Meghann’s world?
15. How will Claire’s life change with Bobby’s success?
16. After a lifetime of responsible, rational decisions, Claire falls in love with Bobby in one evening. Or does she? Does she really believe in love at first sight? Do you?
17. Was Claire right not to tell Bobby about her illness? Did you understand her decision? About this choice to protect her husband, Claire says to her father, “You can sacrifice for them. Isn’t that what love is?” What does this scene tell you about Claire’s idea of love?
18. What is Mama really like? When she sees Claire in the hospital, Mama’s accent disappears and she won’t let Meghann touch her. What do these little choices reveal about Mama? Do you believe she loved her daughters? Was she capable of love? And how did their mother’s view of love shape the girls sense of worth?
19. Joe is carrying a heavy burden and has been for several years. The death of his wife–and his part in it–has eroded a part of his soul. Do you think Claire is right when she says, “She shouldn’t have asked it of you?” If Diana truly loved Joe, would she have asked such a thing of him, knowing the cost? And should Joe have done it? Do you consider euthanasia an act of mercy or murder?
20. Were you surprised by the ending of the novel? Was it organic to the story, or did you feel it was too easy? What would have happened to Meghann and Joe and Ali if Claire had been less fortunate?